Attorney David Jones says Donnelly is abusing his authority.
Attorney David Jones says Donnelly is abusing his authority.

Firing Line

Shortly after Paul Donnelly took over as the director of the Harris County probation department, he assembled his 800 employees and delivered what he describes as the "hack it or pack it speech." He encouraged the staff to view him as their dictator, and to fear him appropriately. "If I wanted a friend," a former employee recalls him saying, "I would buy a puppy."

Donnelly was hired from a private corrections firm in Florida four months ago to reform the department, which many judges say is antiquated and inefficient. He says he wants to improve how courts and probation officers handle thousands of convicted criminals, but some attorneys and judges believe he is too brash to be effective.

Early on, Donnelly made ripples in the department, known as Community Supervision and Corrections, when he fired three supervisors. His office sports a corked ceramic jar labeled "Ashes of Problem Employees."

"Donnelly's arrogance, his abuses of authority, have put him in a very precarious position," says David Jones, a board member of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, whose sister was fired by Donnelly. "He has his own department ready to undermine him at any false move because of the way he has treated some of his best people."

Donnelly says a tough approach to reform is exactly what's needed.

"It sounds harsh, but I'm not here to be everyone's priest or therapist," he says. "I'm here to take a multimillion-dollar agency and make it effective. And to [help taxpayers] get their money's worth. They haven't gotten their money's worth for some time."

A study commissioned by Harris County judges last year found major problems with the department. Many low-risk probationers were funneled into expensive programs, while high-risk offenders were neglected. Probation officers were poorly trained. Supervisors did "relatively little direct supervision." And nobody was evaluating which programs worked.

The report blamed weak leadership. Probation officers received orders from a confusing mishmash of dozens of individual courts. "The department might as well be described now as some 45 different organizations," the report said, "each with its own rules, policies and procedures; each autonomous and accountable to no one."

A committee of judges soon began searching for a new director. They passed over Mike Enax, who was interim department head after the retirement of director Nancy Platt. Donnelly was vice president of Youth Services International in Sarasota. He jumped at the chance to shake things up in Houston.

"I'm not a caretaker of the status quo," he says. "I had opportunities to go to other agencies that were doing fine; I would have been bored."

One of Donnelly's first moves was to fire Janis Bane, a supervisor in the special services division who had been a competitor for his job.

The decision surprised many people. "It was upsetting to me," says state District Judge Denise Collins. "She had a vision, she'd worked in every department, she'd gotten rave reviews…She was the greatest ambassador for the department, in my opinion."

Donnelly also fired Roger Perez, a 23-year employee, who was five months away from qualifying for retirement benefits.

The terminations caused such a buzz in criminal justice circles that state Senator John Whitmire of Houston this month pledged to investigate.

While declining to discuss individual employees, Donnelly defended the terminations in general as important cost-cutting measures. "They had these management positions making good money, $60,000 or $70,000," he says, "and it was just very top-heavy."

Donnelly, whose salary is $110,000, says he's applied a similar belt-tightening to himself: Previous directors had personal secretaries; he shares his with four employees.

Efficiency is important for the probation department. Legislators hope it will help reduce demand on the state's costly prison system. But without cuts, the department will overrun its $50 million budget by more than $3 million this year.

Donnelly wants employees to do more with less.

For the first time in years, he's requiring probation officers to work on evenings and weekends, so they can visit probationers in their homes. "We are going to look at where the zip codes are that give us the most business," he says, "and we want to be there."

But an internal memo reportedly sent by Donnelly to his aides in November reflected more problems for the department. The memo, obtained by the Houston Press, indicated that two months after Donnelly took office, his staff was sending a higher percentage of probationers to jail in almost every court.

The new policies also have taken a toll on probation workers.

"The morale is terrible, the workload has gone up, and everyone is scared of what Donnelly is capable of," says a former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The former worker says the typical load of 120 cases for probation officers has risen to about 135 since Donnelly took over, because probation officers who left the department haven't been replaced.

"People are working over 40 hours a week and not reporting it," she says, "because they are afraid if they don't do everything they're supposed to do, they'll get fired."

Several current probation officers either refused to comment on the changes or did not return phone calls for this story.

Donnelly is taking the complaints in stride. "The morale problems will ebb and flow based on events," he says. "I'm not going to worry about it."

Donnelly, a tall, middle-aged man built like a football player, sports a thick moustache and a badge on his belt. He has probably changed the department faster in the first four months than any other director.

Almost simultaneously, he has launched a new employee training academy and begun designing a residential program open to mothers in lieu of traditional jail.

Describing Donnelly, state District Judge Caprice Cosper says, "I see someone who will look at a lot of different things, and I think that's a good thing."

Cosper praises Donnelly's plans to help courts place criminals in probation programs suited to their needs. "If we want to keep our funding, and we want to have good programs, we need to be paying attention to this," she says.

But not all members of the judiciary place as much faith in Donnelly.

Judge Collins called many of Donnelly's previous employers before he was hired to lead the department and says 75 percent of the comments she received were negative.

None of Donnelly's prior bosses contacted by the Press returned calls. However, Collins shared comments she says she collected from the employers on the condition that individuals she spoke with remain anonymous.

Donnelly had headed the juvenile justice fund for New Jersey. Collins says she asked a former Donnelly co-worker there if he would hire him, and the response was "I would run for the hills." A probation specialist who worked close to Donnelly when he served as chief probation officer in Corpus Christi told her, "I wouldn't even read his application." And another person in the Texas probation community cited Donnelly's "Gestapo-like style."

Donnelly says anybody who does anything good is bound to have enemies. "I certainly don't equate myself with Jesus Christ," he says, "but I think he had a number of enemies, too."

Donnelly declined to name people he considers foes, but he cheered the retirement of former district judge Ted Poe, now a congressional candidate. Poe gained ample national publicity for his creative punishments. A source says Donnelly referred to Poe derisively as "Mr. 60 Minutes," alluding to his appearance on that news program.

The probation director pledged to loosen the courts' stranglehold on probation workers by rotating them between judges, says attorney Jones, who recently met with Donnelly. But if Donnelly pushes too hard, the courts could revolt.

Donnelly needs the support of the judges for what may be his most important and politically sensitive proposal: convincing the county's 37 different criminal courts to harmonize their probation policies.

"It is a huge, huge thing," Donnelly says. "Because right now, we have 37 different ways to respond to criminal behavior."

For example, one judge might require a drug offender on probation to take a urine test every month -- at an expense of $5 per test -- while another might forgo the tests altogether.

"I don't think that's an appropriate system of justice," Donnelly says, "and I know the judges don't, either."

But some judges want autonomy. "I wouldn't think you could get judges to standardize anything," says District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. "They are all elected officials…It's their job [to set their own policies], and if they don't do their job, then you unelect them."

Donnelly says all but four or five of the judges support standardizing the policies. "I am confident that we have the overwhelming majority that will be responsive," he says, "and those who aren't, we're just going to have to deal with it."


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